Captivated: A Brief History Of Animals Exploited For Entertainment

<p><a href="">The Cetacean Project</a></p>
<p><a href="">The Cetacean Project</a></p>

Today, there are hundreds of dolphins, orcas, and other cetaceans on display in theme parks, zoos, and aquariums in nearly every corner of the globe, drawing millions of visitors and generating billions of dollars in revenue each year. While the parading of these animals is usually pitched as having "educational" value, the legacy of captivity is steeped in sordid tradition.

There might seem to be a vast divide between the crumbling ruins of the Colosseum to the polished tile of modern marine animal parks, but the ties between the two are unbroken by history. It was in the golden age of ancient Rome that event organizers realized the public's fascination with seeing wild animals staged before them. Great shows were held, pitting gladiators against lions, bears, and other exotic creatures -- representing for the prideful Empire their dominion over Nature itself.

But even then, these animals weren't used only for bloodsport; more than just controlling their fate, their actions could be shaped to our will as well. Soon, these wild creatures were dancing and performing tricks to the ravenous delight of the crowd -- behavior honed only by treatment worse than a swift death.

Pliny, in his Natural History, eludes to these abuses:

"It is known that one elephant which was rather slow-witted in understanding instructions given to it and had been punished with repeated beatings, was found at night practising the same."

Even after the Roman Empire declined, the parading of animals continued to be linked to stately power and control. Kings and lords through the middle-ages collected these beasts en masse, as a source of amusement, and no doubt as symbols of their supremacy over the still mysterious wild. The public's interest in these animals also never waned. Lacking great stadiums in which to present them, caravans of trained beasts would often travel to the people.

These circuses, as they would come to be known, soon sprang up throughout Europe and, by the 1790s, in the New World as well. Often they were not elaborate affairs. In about the year 1815, an early pioneer in the industry, New York native Hackaliah Bailey, traveled throughout New England with a single elephant he purchased from a boat captain who had won it in an auction in London. His success spurred many imitators, and soon exotic animals from throughout the world were imported and exploited for profit.

Perhaps the most successful of these circus tycoons was P.T. Barnum, who in 1841 opened "Barnum's American Museum" in New York. A master promoter, Barnum became immensely wealthy presenting not only wild beasts, but also human "freaks" and other invented curiosities -- like a mermaid, which was just a monkey's head sewn to the body of a fish.

In the 1860, to keep pace with his audiences' expectation for new marvels, Barnum became the first to add cetaceans to his show -- though the experiment was ill fated. He purchased two white whales, but they died just days later after being kept in a tank of fresh water. Barnum would go on to purchase four more whales, but only two survived their poorly designed captivity long enough to be displayed.

From the New York Tribune, August 9, 1861:

These are white whales and were taken near the Labrador coast by a crew of thirty-five men. The largest has attained the extreme size reached by this species, and is about 23 feet long; the other is 18 feet long. Their form and motion are graceful and their silver backs and bellies show brightly through the water. A long-continued intimacy has endeared them to each other, and they go about quite like a pair of whispering lovers, blowing off their mutual admiration in a very emphatic manner.

Although the circus industry continued to gain momentum into the 20th century, cetaceans would not be displayed again until 1913, when the New York Aquarium became the first to exhibit bottlenose dolphins, five in all. Though a major draw for the crowds, each of the animals died within two years.

1938 saw the opening of Marine Studios in Florida, and with it, the reintroduction of bottlenose dolphins for public display. At first, they were just presented as curiosities, but as William M. Johnson writes in his book "The Rose-Tinted Menagerie," their potential as entertainers first emerged:

During feeding time at Marine Studios, it is said, dolphins gradually fell into the habit of jumping up to catch the fish that were thrown to them, and this miniature spectacle always amused the public, the keepers and curator. Then a year later in 1939, Cecil M. Walker, then responsible for maintenance of the water purification pumps on the night-shift, observed one evening how a dolphin pushed a pelican feather across the surface of the water towards him. "Just for the hell of it" he took the proffered feather and threw it back into the water, whereupon, to his great surprise, the dolphin brought it back again. The game continued with Walker experimenting with a ball, an inner tube of a bicycle, small stones and other objects. As the game took shape with other dolphins joining in the act, it began to resemble the repertoire seen today in every dolphinarium in the world.

Between then and 1980, an estimated 1,500 dolphins were plucked from the ocean to fill aquariums and the growing marine park industry -- and by the 1960s, other marine mammals, like orcas, became captured and trained to fuel the public's' desire for such shows.

Since scientific understanding of these animals' social and intellectual capacity have grown significantly since they first began to be exploited, it has become necessary for parks and aquariums to re-couch the justification of their captivity as of some noble purpose, and not as symbols of mankind's ability to tame even the wildest and most exotic of creatures -- but it's thinly veiled at best.

Despite all the claims that keeping cetaceans in captivity is important for their ability to inspire awe and appreciation in us for animals that might otherwise go unseen, the truth may be that it's a different celebration entirely, for a human construct -- reassurance of our ability to control the wild, one that dates back thousands of years to a darker time in our history.